22 Apr 2005
“Paji looooi!” the vendors cried as I stepped from the train. Hazy memories from almost a year ago quickly came back into focus. I was in Dezhou again.
My company had sent me for the second time to the mid-sized Shandong city for a day of teacher training. It’s a 14 hour train ride to Dezhou, and the train leaves Shanghai at 8pm, which puts arrival at 10am. The only problem was the training was scheduled to begin at 8am. The solution? I arrived a whole day early. I originally thought I’d be either taken sightseeing or allowed time to myself to study. That was really overly optimistic of me.
I was given a soft sleeper ticket, which meant a nicer bed and a more private sleeping chamber. Unfortunately I wound up with three men who snored like banshees. (“Banshee” may seem like a strange choice of words, but you really should have heard them. One seemed to have some weird lung condition, and another was really more moaning than snoring. It was very creepy.) Still, I managed to pass 13 of the 14 hours prone in my bunk, never coming down once. Time passes by much faster when you’re as good at sleeping as I am.
The afternoon of the first day was spent making last-minute trips to random kindergartens. It scored our agent gratitude from the schools, as most of the children had never seen a real live foreigner before. My task? “Teach them something.” “Play with them.” It didn’t really matter what I did anyway. My victory was ensured by my mere presence. Still, we had a good time, and I daresay the kids may have learned something from me.
I think the hardest part about company trips is the dinners. Almost every night it’s another big formal event at a fancy-schmancy restaurant with multiple guests of honor. Of course, I have to talk to these people, tell them “no, my Chinese is really quite terrible,” how long I’ve been in China, that I like Chinese food, and what the difference is between China and the USA. I’m supposed to flatter them shamelessly, but I never do that. I just play my foreigner card (read: different culture, incomplete mastery of the language) and try not to gag as everyone fawns all over each other.
And then there’s the liquor. There are always many, many toasts. You can’t start eating until the first toast has been made, and the last toast signals the end of the meal. If I’m lucky the alcohol is beer or red wine, but every now and then I’m forced to drink the vile baijiu. Shandong is one place where the people are especially insistent about the baijiu imbibing.
The first night I managed to talk my way out of baijiu (they get more forgiving when you’re willing to down a cup of beer for every sip of baijiu they take), but I thought I was going to lose it when one guy brought up the issue of Japan. He was obviously looking for a “yeah, we hate those Japanese bastards!” out of everyone, but before he could get it, one of my co-workers helpfully offered, “hey, you know John speaks Japanese. He even studied there for a year.” Then all eyes were on me. Great.
“You studied in Japan?” he asked me.
“So, what do you think of the Japanese? No, wait… What do you think of Japan as compared to China?”
“Well, do you mean the countries or the people?”
I hesitated slightly. “They’re both good.”
He leaned forward, intense. “They’re both good?”
He looked around incredulously at his audience. They all seemed ready to change the topic. Before giving up on his hatefest, though, he just had to make a comment about how he was teaching his nephew to hate the Japanese because they’re an evil race.
That night I went to bed fairly early. One of the last things I noticed before going to bed was the sticker on the telephone: Please remember to inform your family of your safe arrival! Cute. What a nice hotel.
I was awakened briefly at midnight when they called to ask if I needed a girl to service me.
The next morning found me at the hotel’s free breakfast buffet. I’ve never had much appetite for breakfast in general, and never been a fan of Chinese breakfast in particular. I typically just have an egg or something. I’m glad I did a full tour of the dishes offered, however. Whoever translated the Chinese dishes’ names into English decided to chuck tradition out the window and make the dishes’ names into complete sentences. I discovered “It is hot to fry the white flower” (À±³´°×²Ë) and “The green pepper fries the meat” (Çà½·³´Èâ).
Training went fine. I was surprised that Mr. Japanese-hater showed up. He wasn’t a teacher, but he had been invited the night before (merely out of politeness, I thought), and he actually showed.
That evening I was taken to a middle school as a favor for one of the agents who taught there. Although they had been studying English for three years already, none of those kids had ever spoken to a foreigner.
First on the agenda were two short English plays put on by the students. The girls did one about shopping that didn’t seem to have any intelligible plot. The boys, however, decided to do a version of “Stone Soup.” Their take? It took place in post-war Vietnam with a stranded American soldier the guy who made the stone soup. Yeah… I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean either.
After fielding the usual questions, I was expected to play some sort of game with them. I was amazed and delighted that the kids had never played hangman. I had to explain the game to them, but then they got really into it. Their first guy got hanged, but the second one survived. My two phrases? The East is Red and The truth will set you free. I’m rather sure my choices were entirely lost on them.
That night in my hotel room when I went through the hotel’s informational brochure I discovered an interesting special service. “Please dial 50118 and ask the front desk for help you to avoid disturbing the telephone. Have a good time!”
A quick scan of the Chinese revealed what this message meant: “Please dial 50118 and tell the front desk if you do not want to be disturbed by phone calls.”
In plain English, they meant: “Please dial 50118 and tell the front desk if you won’t be needing us to solicit you for sex by phone.” There’s never any direct mention of such hotel services.
I noticed a new, smaller sticker on the telephone as I went to bed that night. It was a telephone number for “health entertainment” (¿µÓé). I guess that’s about as overt as they’re willing to be.
I wasn’t able to leave until the next evening because an extra morning of training had been tacked on to the first day’s. I was promised the afternoon off, though.
At noon I had to schmooze with more “important people” over lunch. Apparently this one guy was super important. I was told flat-out that I should kiss up to him. I managed a “I think you look like a Chinese Tom Cruise” (he actually kinda did). Everyone loved that one. Mr. Important liked me so much that he talked the agents into letting him borrow me for several hours. That’s how I wound up at another school that afternoon for more unprepared “Teach them something” and “Play with them.”
Before getting on the train I had one last dinner in Dezhou. Mr. Japanese-hater insisted on treating me, the agents, and the Chinese trainer to a meal.
He didn’t beat around the bush much. He brought up Japan almost right away. I cut him off to tell him, “Look, I don’t like the Japanese government either. But I don’t believe any race of people is ‘bad.'” He smiled, nodded, and said no more. He was able to meet me halfway on that. So then the beers started rolling in. Big bottles of cold Yanjing. If I hadn’t been pressed for time, I’m sure I would have gotten pretty wasted.
Something weird happened that meal. I actually started to like the guy. He was an interesting character for sure, but what really struck me had nothing to do with politics or prejudices. He was sincere. He was quite possibly the only part of my trip that was 100% real.
Mr. Japanese-hater insisted on seeing me off to the train station along with the agents. I kind of wished I had more time to understand the guy a little better. As I stepped on the train, the last thing I heard out of Dezhou was “Paji looooi!“